Furman Football 2023: Previewing the Schedule Part I (Non-Conference Preview)

Furman All-American cornerback Travis Blackshear (photo courtesy of Furman athletics)

2023 Furman Football Overview Heading Into The Summer

No team in the Southern Conference has as many starters returning to the fold as the Furman Paladins do heading into the 2023 football season, and coming off a 10-3 season, which ended with a heartbreaking, 41-38, loss in the FCS quarterfinals to Incarnate Word, there is plenty of optimism when looking towards 2023.

The strong season turned in by the Paladins was good enough for a Top 10 finish in the final STATS FCS poll (No. 10), as there is as much momentum heading into a season for the Paladins since the early 2000s.

The Paladins will be one of a handful of teams that will be in the mix to make it all the way to Frisco, TX for a chance to compete for a national title in January. Furman remains the only current member of the Southern Conference to win a national championship, having done so in 1988.

Furman and Samford will be among the favorites to make it all the way to Texas in January of 2023, looking to become the first Southern Conference team to compete for a national title since Appalachian State won its third-straight national title in 2007.

The first part of the 2023 schedule preview for Furman will first provide a brief overview of what returns for Furman, and then I will take an in-depth look at the first three opponents of the 2023 season for the Paladins.

For the second-straight season, Furman will open its schedule on a Thursday night when it hosts Tennessee Tech on Aug. 31. Furman’s first-ever Thursday night home game was a successful one, as Furman downed North Greenville with a 52-0 win over Division II North Greenville to open up what would result in a 10-win 2022 campaign. The 2023 schedule will feature an all-Division I slate.

Furman boasts 20 returning starters (8-offense, 10-defense, 2 special teams), which has many around the program so optimistic about what the 2023 campaign could hold in store.

With its 10 wins last fall, it marked the first time since the 2005 campaign that the Paladins have posted a double-digit win total, as well as also equaling that ’05 team for regular-season wins, with the Paladins finishing up with nine regular-season victories.

The seven Southern Conference wins by Furman a year ago marked the most SoCon wins recorded by a Furman football team since 2001. The Paladins finished second in the to Samford, who finished the regular season with a perfect 8-0 record in Southern Conference play, as the Bulldogs handed the Paladins a

Graduate transfer quarterback Tyler Huff, who turned in an outstanding inaugural season as the starter under center for the Paladins and was featured in a new offensive scheme under first-year offensive coordinator Justin Roper. The Paladins were a no-huddle, one-back offense and after having struggled the previous two seasons in more of a spread option/hybrid offense, Furman saw an offensive revival of sorts last season.

The Paladins finished the 2022 season with the 29th ranked (421.9 YPG) offense in the nation, while posting the nation’s 15th best rushing offense (212.8 YPG). Huff will enter the season among the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation.

The rising senior from Ocala, FL, who has two years of eligibility remaining, completed 199-of-292 passing for 2,199 yards, with 15 TDs and eight INTs in his first season with the Paladins after transferring in from Presbyterian last season.

As a rushing threat, he turned in one of the best single-season rushing efforts in Furman football history for a Paladin signal-caller, completing the campaign with 694 yards and eight rushing scores on 292 attempts (6.6 YPC). All told, Huff accounted for 2,883 yards of total offense to go with 23 touchdown responsibilities last season.

Furman also returns All-SoCon running back Dominic Roberto (147 rush att, 1,120 yds, 11 TDs, 5.7 YPC). Roberto became Furman’s first 1,000-yard rusher in a season since 2019 when Devin Wynn rushed for 1,182 yards. Roberto became the 16th running back in Paladin football history to rush for 1,000 or more yards in a season.

The Paladins must replace top receiving option and All-America tight end Ryan Miller from a year ago. Miller finished off the 2022 season by hauling in 72 passes for 782 yards, with 12 TDs and averaged 10.58 YPR. Most recently, Miller was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The top returning receiving option for the Paladins coming into the 2023 season will be Joshua Harris (48 rec, 667 yds, 5 TDs, 13.9 YPR). Harris had back-to-back 100-yard receiving efforts in wins over both Mercer and Wofford. Against the Bears, Harris was able to haul in five passes for a career-high 146 yards and a touchdown. In the win over Wofford a week later, Harris caught eight passes for 112 yards and a score in the win over the Terriers. With Miller’s graduation, now Harris will become the top pass-catching weapon for the Paladins going forward into 2023.

Teaming with Harris at wide receiver will be Wayne Anderson Jr. (39 rec, 396 yds, 2 TDs, 10.1 YPR) and graduate transfer Kyndel Dean (44 rec, 407 yds, 9.2 YPR) will help supplement Harris at wide receiver once again this season. Parks Gissinger (4 rec, 29 yds, 7.2 YPR) is set to step into the starting role at tight end for the departed Ryan Miller. It will be interesting to see what transpires at the position as the spring moves forward and how Gissinger is to be utilized in the passing game.

Along the offensive line the Paladins will return three starters, losing only left tackle Anderson Tomlin and center Evan Jumper from last season’s starting five along the offensive front. Set to anchor the unit this fall will be left guard Jacob Johanning, right guard Wyatt Hughes, and right tackle Pearson Toomey. Toomey will head into the 2023 football season as arguably the top offensive lineman in the Southern Conference.

On the defensive side of the football, the one real significant loss is nose tackle Cameron Coleman (32 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1 blkd kick) from the middle of the Paladin defensive front. In many ways, the Volunteer State native was the leader on the Paladin defense that helped blocked 10 kicks last season to set a new school standard. The Paladins also must replace a pair of important players in the secondary, in cornerbacks Micah Robinson (35 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 7 PBUS, 3 INTs in 2022) and Ivan Yates (35 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 6 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 FR), as both have decided to enter the transfer portal. 

The top returnees along the defensive front heading into the 2023 season for the Paladins are graduate senior defensive tackle Matt Sochovka (28 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 blkd kicks) and redshirt senior defensive end Jack Barton (30 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 6 PBUs, 2 QBHs), as the two should contend for all-league honors this fall. Junior Xavier Stephens (26 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 5 QBHs) will be in his second season along the Paladin defensive front after transferring in from Lehigh a year ago.

When healthy, Stephens’ athleticism along the difference-maker along the defensive front for the Paladins. Defensive end Jeremiah Jackson (5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 QBHs) is also back along the defensive line after seeing his season end abruptly with a broken leg, which he suffered in a 25-19 win at Charleston Southern. Bryce Stanfield (17 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks) rounds out an extremely deep defensive line for the Paladins, as he will factor in as one of Furman’s top pass-rushers at defensive end.

The Paladins should be among the best in FCS football at the linebacker position this fall, with Braden Gilby (94 tackles, 15.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 2 FFs ) leading the charge in the middle of the Furman defense. Bandit Luke Clark (41 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 FF, 7 QBHs) is also back, as are both ‘Spur’ linebackers Jalen Miller (41 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 2 FFs, 1 FR, 1 QBH) and Cally Chizik (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 6 PBUs, 3 INTs, 2 TDs) also return for Furman to add excellent depth to the middle of the Paladin defense.

Chizik had two INT returns for scores last season, including intercepting a pair of passes in the win over Incarnate Word, as his first pick against the Cardinals led to the game’s first points and gave the Paladins an early 7-0 lead. Bryce McCormick (77 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 3 PBUs, 1 QBH) and Evan DiMaggio (44 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 QBH) will also figure prominently into the plans for the Paladins in the middle of the defense at interior linebacker.

The back end of the defense will have both savvy veteran leadership and playmaking ability. Returning as the leaders of the unit will be All-America candidate Travis Blackshear (46 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1 INT, I blkd kick, 4 PBUs, 2 FFs, 2 TDs) at the lockdown cornerback spot, while Ivan Yates (35 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 6 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 FF) returns to contend for a starting spot at the other corner position.

Safeties Kam Brinson (59 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5 PBUs, 1 INT, 4 FRs) and All-America candidate Hugh Ryan (69 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 8 PBUs, 4 INTs, 1 FF) will give the Paladins potentially the best tandem the Southern Conference this fall.

Finally, Furman’s special teams unit will welcome the return of Ryan Leavy (39.6 YPP) and Axel Lepvreau (8-of-9 on FGs/51-of-53 PATs) and Ian Williams (10-of-12 on FGs/63.2 yards-per-kickoff attempt) to handle the place-kicking responsibilities for the 2023 season, while Leavy will once again handle the punting duties. Kick return and punt return duties will likely be handled by the explosive trio of Wayne Anderson Jr. (24.2 YPR/1 TD/100-yd KO ret vs WCU) and Kendall Thomas (16.8 yards per KO ret.) should once again be in the mix as kick return threats this fall, while Cally Chizik (6.73 yards per punt ret.) and Joshua Harris (8.17 yards per punt ret.) could be in line for the punt return responsibilities.

Off-Season Additions Coaching News:

As is usually the case with pretty much any successful football program at the Group of Five FBS or FCS levels, the chance to move on to bigger jobs and opportunities is often a byproduct of a program’s success. Such was the case for the Furman football program following what, in many ways, was a breakthrough 2022 campaign. The Paladins lost alum and talented running backs coach Antonio Wilcox to UConn, while Paladin defensive backs coach Corico Wright has moved on to coach in the CAA as a key member of Ryan Canty’s staff at the University of Delaware. He is the defensive passing game coordinator and new defensive backs coach for the Blue Hens. As with all Furman coaches that move on to two positions, I would like to wish both well.

For Wilcox, none of us will soon forget what he meant to the Paladin football program as a running back during both his time playing for the ‘Dins, as well as serving as an assistant coach for the Paladins for each of the past three seasons, and prior to that, at nearby North Greenville for a couple of seasons. He had one year of coaching experience at Furman prior to leaving for North Greenville.

Wilcox helped not only develop Dominic Roberto into the running back he has emerged as over the past couple of seasons, which included rushing for 1,194 yards in Furman’s 10-win campaign in 2022. During his time as a player for the Paladins, Wilcox helped serve as a key member of head coach Clay Hendrix’s first team in Greenville back in 2017, as he rushed for 814 yards and 14 scores, leading the Paladins ground attack in what was a season which yielded a return to the FCS playoffs for the first time in four years. He finished his career rushing for 1,777 yards and 21 TDs in his Furman career.

Wright helped lead a defensive backfield that ranked second nationally in total interceptions last season, as the Paladins finished the 2022 season picking off 18 passes, which included returning three of those errant passes by the opposition for touchdowns.

With those departures, it meant that head coach Clay Hendrix would have to go out and find a pair of replacements for those two position groups for the 2023 campaign. Set to assume the responsibilities as the new running backs coach for the Paladins this fall will be Cory Colder, who comes to Greenville from Davidson College, where he spent the past couple of seasons as the running backs coach. Colder helped play a big role in helping the Wildcats garner FCS playoff berths each of the past couple of seasons. Colder was a key catalyst behind helping the Wildcats field what was a stable of running backs that was among the top ground attacks nationally each of the past two campaigns, including a unit that led the nation with an average of 331.5 YPG last season.

As far as the defensive backfield is concerned, the Paladins will welcome Taifon Mainsah into the fold as the new cornerbacks coach. Like Colder, Mainsah’s previous stop was at Davidson, where he spent the previous four seasons. During his time with the Wildcats, Mainsah started his career with the Wildcats as a volunteer assistant in 2019 and was promoted to full-time assistant in 2020.

Like Colder, Mainsah was also instrumental in helping the Wildcats make back-to-back FCS playoff appearances, which included helping the Wildcats make an appearance in the FCS playoffs during the 2021 season. Mainsah also played a role in Davidson returning to the postseason in 2022, helping them claim the Pioneer Football League’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

vs Tennessee Tech (Thursday, Aug. 31/Paladin Stadium/7 p.m.)

Furman will kickoff the 2023 season for a second-straight campaign on a Thursday night in the friendly confines of Paladin Stadium, facing the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles.

The Paladins and Golden Eagles recently met back in the 2021 football season, as the Paladins were able to shut down the Golden Eagles by getting a 26-0 win in Cookeville in what was the second game of that particular season. It will mark just the fourth all-time meeting between the two, with the Paladins holding a 2-1 all-time series edge.

The Golden Eagles enter the season coming off a campaign which saw them finish the 2022 campaign with a 4-7 record, which included a 2-3 mark in the quickly dwindling and transitioning Ohio Valley Conference. In that 4-7 finish a year ago, the Golden Eagles led most of the way before seeing eventual Southern Conference champion Samford rally late in the game to come away with a 33-28 win at Tucker Stadium in Cookeville last season. That was a potentially season-turning game for both programs. It would be the start of what was a five-game losing streak that would ultimately end up defining the campaign for Tennessee Tech.

The Golden Eagles are in the process of rebuilding under DeWayne Alexander, who heads into his seventh season as the head coach in 2023. The Golden Eagles finished tied for third in the league’s final standings. Tennessee Tech will expect to be a league title contender this fall, with a new and more fast-paced offense expected to be given a boost with the addition of Hayes Gibson, who has transferred into the Tennessee Tech program from Iowa State. Gibson will battle Ethan Roberts for the starting signal-calling duties during preseason camp.

The Golden Eagles will also expect big things out of freshman running back Justin Pegues, while the Golden Eagles must replace their four top pass-catchers from a year ago. The offense, which was led by Austin Peay transfer Jeremiah Oatsvall last season, could encounter its share of struggles with such a young unit playing together for the first time when they show up at Paladin Stadium on Aug. 31. It will be challenging for the Furman defensive staff from the standpoint that there are a lot of unknowns on that side of the ball coming into the matchup for Tennessee Tech.

The strength of the Golden Eagles should be on the defensive side of the ball, which wasn’t necessarily a strength last season, as the Golden Eagles surrendered 32.4 PPG and 433.5 PPG to their opposition last fall. Tennessee Tech surrendered nearly 200 YPG on the ground (192.4 YPG). That isn’t a good recipe for success when facing a team like Furman. The Golden Eagles lost their top two tacklers to graduation from a year ago, and the top returning tackler on the defensive side of the football heading into the season will be Jacquez McGowan (59 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 PBU, 1 INT).

The Golden Eagles finished the campaign tied for third in the final OVC standings and will be looking to compete for a piece of the league title this fall. Only one team represented the OVC in the FCS playoffs, with the automatic bid going to Southeast Missouri State after it tied with UT-Martin for the league title, and with all other tiebreakers even, SE Missouri State garnered the playoff invite as a result of winning a coin flip.

Brief Recap of the last meeting: Furman 26, Tennessee Tech 0 (Sept. 11, 2021)

Furman used its first shutout since 2004 to start a season 2-0 for the first time since 2014, as the Paladins posted a 26-0 win on the road over Tennessee Tech Saturday afternoon at Tucker Stadium.

There were several unknowns for the Furman football team coming into the season, however, none of those unknowns included the Paladin defense. The shutout pitched by the Furman defense marked the first since 2004, when the Paladins went to Elon and posted a 10-0 win on Oct. 23, 2004.

Furman held the Golden Eagles to just 121 yards of total offense on the day, out-gaining the Golden Eagles by 250 yards (371-121).

Furman’s defense forced nine Tennessee Tech punts, picked off three passes, and sacked Tennessee Tech quarterbacks three times in imposing complete dominance throughout 60 minutes of football. In the second half alone, Furman’s defense allowed just one first down and 18 yards of total offense.

For the game, the Paladin defense held Tennessee Tech to just 23 yards on the ground and 98 through the air. Furman has now held its first two foes of the 2021 season to less than 100 yards on the ground, limiting North Carolina A&T to just 98 yards on the ground in the season opening win last week.

On the offensive side of the football, the Paladins managed the game with precise efficiency, using a heavy dose of Devin Wynn on the ground, while Timmy Bleekrode followed up his three field goal performance in the season-opening win over North Carolina A&T with a career-best four field goals on Saturday, which included a career-long 51-yard field goal to highlight his overall performance.

Bleekrode’s career-long 51-yard field goal came just six seconds into the final quarter, as it brought an end to an 8-play, 40-yard drive.

Following Travis Blackshear’s second INT of the game and third in the first two games of the season, Devin Wynn would score his second and Furman second and final touchdown of the afternoon, as he ran it in from two yards out. Dating back to the final two games of the 2020-21 spring season, Blackshear has now picked off four passes in his last four games.

Wynn finished another strong performance rushing 17 times for 84 yards and a pair of TDs. His two rushing scores give him 27 total in his career, which now ranks him ninth in Furman history.

Furman scored on four of its first five possessions in the opening half of play, utilizing a 42-yard scoring run and field goals of 32, 45 and 25 yards, as the Paladins were able to take a 16-0 lead into the halftime locker room.

Late in the half, Tennessee Tech made a change at quarterback, and it appeared the momentum of the game might be ready to flip to the side of the home team wearing Purple, as Willie Miller replaced Brandon Shanley under center for the Golden Eagles.

However, after the Golden Eagles drove inside Paladin territory, Furman’s defense usurped all momentum back to the visiting sidelines, as Furman stopped the Golden Eagles on a crucial 4th-and-1 play at the Paladin 42, forcing Tennessee Tech to turn the ball over on downs.

On the ensuing possession, the Paladin offense drove the ball 51 yards in 12 plays, culminating with Bleekrode’s 25-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining in the half.

Following a scoreless third quarter, Furman’s final touchdown of the game would be set up by DiMarcus Clay’s interception off a tipped Shanley pass early in the final frame.

Late in the contest, Blackshear picked off his second pass of the day at the Paladin 14 and returned it 42 yards to end Tennessee Tech’s final scoring threat of the day.

Hamp Sisson finished the contest completing 17-of-29 passes for 196 yards, while adding another 25 yards on 10 carries on the ground, finishing the afternoon with 221 yards of total offense.

Sisson’s favorite target in the passing attack for the Paladins was true freshman Joshua Harris, who hauled in five passes for 54 yards, while Zach Peterson had three catches for 52 yards, and All-America tight end finished with three catches for 42 yards.

Furman safety Hugh Ryan led a comprehensive effort by defensive coordinator Duane Vaughn’s defense, posting seven tackles and a tackle-for-loss. Elijah McKoy, Parker Stokes and Seth Johnson accounted for the three sacks posted by Furman.

As you might expect, one peek at the stats sheet following the game shows complete domination in nearly every area. Two that stick out are Furman’s +16 advantage in first downs (22-6) and plays run (80-51).

The Prediction: This game should go the way of the Paladins, as for a second-straight season, Furman will get the season off to a strong start with a rather convincing win over Tennessee Tech…Furman wins 31-14.

South Carolina takes down Furman, 41-10, in 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Jeff Blake/USA Today Sports)

at South Carolina (Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023/Williams-Brice Stadium/TBA)

Furman’s second game of the 2023 season will take the Paladins into SEC Country to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks in what will be the first meeting between the two programs since the 2014 season, when the Gamecocks were making pretty easy work of the Paladins, getting a 41-10 win in Columbia.

It will likely be a Gamecocks team that will enter the season nationally-ranked under the direction of third-year head coach Shane Beamer (15-11), and it’s a Gamecocks program that ended the 2022 season in strong fashion, posting wins over No. 1 Tennessee (W, 63-38) and No. 7 Clemson (W, 31-30) in their final two regular-season games.

The Gamecocks, unfortunately, were on the wrong end of what was a 45-38 heartbreaker to Notre Dame in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. That loss would see the Gamecocks conclude the 2022 campaign with an 8-5 overall record, which included a 4-4 mark in the SEC East, which was good enough for a third-place finish in the division.

When the Paladins and Gamecocks square off on Sept. 9, it will mark the 50th all-time meeting between the two programs, with South Carolina holding the 28-20-1 all-time series advantage.

The Garnet and Black have claimed the past two meetings against Furman, posting wins in 2014 (W, 41-10) and 2010 (W, 38-19), respectively. The last time the Paladins claimed a win in the series against the Gamecocks was the 1982 season, as the Paladins came to Williams-Brice Stadium and shocked the ‘Cocks, with a 28-23 win over South Carolina, who were under the direction of Richard Bell.

Like Furman, the Gamecocks have as much optimism entering a football season in at least a decade, and while only 10 starters return, there is enough talent returning and coming in through both the portal and as a part of Beamer’s last two signing classes to fuel such unlimited optimism among the Gamecocks’ rabid fanbase.

Heading up an offense that finished the season averaging 32.2 PPG and 378.8 YPG will be quarterback Spencer Rattler (264-of-399 passing, 3,026 yds, 18 TDs, 12 INTs), who was largely responsible for South Carolina’s offensive surge towards the conclusion of the 2023 season.

Rattler will likely be an All-SEC quarterback candidate by season’s end and was actually considered a Heisman candidate during the 2020 campaign when he was quarterback of the Oklahoma Sooners. He threw for a school-record six touchdowns in South Carolina’s resounding 63-38 win over No. 1 ranked Tennessee.  In South Carolina’s 31-30 win over arch-rival Clemson at Memorial Stadium, Rattler passed for 360 yards, with a pair of touchdowns and a pair of INTs. All told against the Tigers, Rattler had three touchdown responsibilities, as he also added a 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. As a rushing threat for the Gamecocks last season, Rattler completed the campaign with 46 yards on the ground to go along with three rushing scores.

South Carolina saw both Marshawn Lloyd and Jaheim Bell opt to enter the transfer portal, leaving an open competition to garner the starting responsibilities this fall. Bell was the team’s second-leading rusher, despite his primary position being tight end. With that said, South Carolina’s two top rushers combined to account for just 834 combined yards and 12 TDs last season. In fact, the Gamecocks averaged 118.8 YPG on the ground last season, which ranked them 12th in the 14-team SEC, as well as ranking 106th nationally.

The most plausible option to replace Lloyd as the leading ground candidate this coming season will be Juju McDowell (62 rush att, 219 yds, 2 TDs, 3.5 YPC/24 rec, 205 yds, 1 TD, 8.5 YPC), however, Newberry transfer Mario Anderson (3,301 rushing yards and 35 rushing TDs at Division II Newberry) also should factor into the Gamecocks’ ground attack this fall.  The offensive line lost most of its experience to graduation from a year ago and will lean heavily on guys like left guard Jakai Moore and left tackle Jaylen Nichols.

The top returning receiver for the Gamecocks heading into the 2023 season will be Antwane Wells Jr. (68 rec, 928 yds, 6 TDs, 13.6 YPR). His numbers last season were good enough to garner Wells Jr. All-SEC honors. With Jaheim Bell and Jalen Brooks having gone, it will be up to Wells Jr. to shoulder much of the receiving load this coming fall for the Gamecocks.

Another wideout that could step into the fold as a reliable option in the passing game is Dakareon Joyner (8 rec, 120 yds, 1 TD, 15.0 YPR). Ahmarean Brown is a player that transferred in from Georgia Tech that could step into a nice role in this Gamecocks offense. Eddie Lewis also arrives from Memphis where he caught 42 passes for 615 yards and seven scores last season for the Tigers.

On the defensive side of the ball, four starters are back from a unit that ended the 2022 season surrendering 28.8 PPG and 404.7 YPG a year ago. The Gamecocks finished the season ranking 87th nationally in scoring defense and 89th nationally in total defense. The Garnet and Black was most impressive against the pass last season, holding teams to just 207.6 YPG through the air last season.  The Gamecocks will have a new defensive coordinator, as Clayton White takes over the reins of the defense after moving over from Arkansas.

The strength of the Gamecocks defense will likely be its defensive line, and in particular, its interior defensive front. Tonka Hemingway (33 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 6 QBHs, 2 FRs) highlights the returnees along that interior defensive front. Jordan Strachan (10 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) and Terrell Dawkins (2 tackles) will highlight the returnees along the edge.

The Gamecocks will be solid at linebacker and will be given a big boost with the return of Mohamed Kaba’s (8 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU) return to the unit. Kaba had his 2022 season cut short before having it cut short after suffering a torn ACL in the third game of the season at Arkansas.

Three of South Carolina’s starters, which started its bowl game against Notre Dame are back. Returning to the fold for the 2023 season are strong safety Nick Emmanwori (85 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 QBHs, 1 FR), free safety DQ Smith (54 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs, 5 PBUs, 2 QBHs, 1 FF) and cornerback Marcellus Dial (45 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 12 PBUs, 3 INTs). It’s the unit of the Gamecock defense that enters the season with the most reputable starting experience. Emmanwori was the team’s leading tackler last season, while Dial led the team in both pass breakups and INT and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week following South Carolina’s win at Clemson, posting two tackles, one INT, and tied for his personal single-game high three pass breakups.

The Gamecocks special teams will be headed up by a familiar face to both Furman and Southern Conference football fans, as former Elon head coach Pete Lembo heads up a talented unit that in many ways, was a big headline story for the 2022 South Carolina football team. Like his father Frank Beamer, Shane Beamer’s Gamecocks know a little something about blocking kicks and making plays in the special teams department. The Gamecocks blocked a total of six kicks last season.

The Gamecocks return an All-American at punter, as Kai Kroeger (46.1 YPP avg) returns to handle the punting duties, while Mitch Jeter (11-of-11 on FGs) returns as the Gamecocks’ place-kicker for the 2023 season. Jeter connected on all 11 of his field goal attempts last season, which included two from 50 or more yards. Xavier Legette will once again handle the kick return duties after setting a school single-season record after averaging 29.4 YPR on 15 kick returns for the Gamecocks last season. Memphis transfer Eddie Lewis looks like a strong candidate to handle the punt return duties for South Carolina this fall.

Brief Recap of the last meeting: South Carolina 41, Furman 10 (Oct. 18, 2014)

COLUMBIA, S.C.–It was a big day for Dylan Thompson and the South Carolina passing attack, as he passed for 262 yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead South Carolina to a 41-10 mid-season, non-conference win over Furman in what was just the second meeting between the two since the Paladins’ historic win over South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium back in 1982.

Thompson was able to connect on 14-of-22 passes on the day, which included touchdown strikes of 45 and 14 yards to Jerrell Adams and Shaq Roland, respectively, en route to leading a solid offensive effort by the Gamecocks, with South Carolina out-gaining the Paladins 548-302 in the 31-point triumph.

The Paladins, who dropped to 2-5 on the 2014 season with the loss, were led offensively by Hank McCloud’s rushing effort, as he finished the contest with his sixth-career 100-yard rushing game, which was highlighted by Furman’s lone touchdown of the contest–a 60-yard jaunt in the opening half of play–as he finished the contest with 13 carries for 106 yards and the aforementioned scoring run.

It marked Furman’s fifth-straight loss after the Paladins started off the 2014 campaign with wins over Gardner-Webb (W, 13-3) and Mercer (W, 25-20). The Paladins, who were the then defending Southern Conference champions, had to replace returning starter Reese Hannon under center after he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the opening game of the season against the Bulldogs.

Following a 14-yard scoring connection from Dylan Thompson to Shaq Roland to open the scoring in the contest and give the Gamecocks a 7-0 lead with 9:14 remaining in the opening quarter, the Paladins would end up tying the game less than two minutes later, as McCloud took the hand-off from Paladin starting signal-caller PJ Blazejowski, and he scampered 60 yards untouched for the score, leveling the contest, 7-7.

Trailing 14-7, the Paladins squandered a golden opportunity to tie the game following Reggie Thomas’ sack of Thompson, forcing a fumble, which was recovered by Furman defensive lineman Ira McCune at the South Carolina 26. However, the Paladins saw the promising opportunity squandered, as McCloud was stripped of the football by South Carolina’s Michael Washington at the Gamecock 11 to end Furman’s scoring threat.

Furman’s defense stymied the Gamecocks on the next possession, however, the dam would eventually break and South Carolina would end up tacking on a couple of second-quarter touchdowns at each end of the frame, as Jerell Adams got behind the Paladin secondary for a 45-yard scoring catch a little over a minute into the second frame to give the Gamecocks a 21-7 lead.

With just over two minutes remaining in the half, the Gamecocks extended their lead to 28-7 when Mike Davis capped the three-play, 28-yard drive, with a 2-yard scoring plunge. South Carolina got the ball in great field position as a result of a second first half fumble by the Paladins.

The Paladins would get points via South Carolina fumble in their own territory on the opening Gamecocks possession of the second half, as Marcus McMorris recovered a Gamecocks fumble at their own 47 early in the third quarter. It would lead to Furman’s final points of the afternoon, as the Paladins moved it 41 yards to the South Carolina six before having to settle for a 29-yard Hunter Townes field goal to make it a 28-10 game.

The Gamecocks would tack on Shon Carson touchdown midway through the third and a 27-yard field goal by Elliott Fry with a little over five minutes remaining in the frame, increasing South Carolina’s advantage to 38-10. Fry’s field goal was set up by a 26-yard interception return by Chris Moody. Fry would provide the final points with another field goal, as he booted through a 23-yard field goal with 12:41 remaining to make it a 41-10 game.

South Carolina finished the contest with a 548-302 advantage in total offense, as Thompson paced the Gamecock balanced Gamecock offense which amassed 262 yards through the air and another 267 on the ground, as Mike Davis and David Williams, rushed for 111 and 110 yards, respectively, pacing the rushing attack.

The Prediction: The Paladins will have a tough time coming into Williams-Brice and pulling off the upset against a program with a lot of momentum right now, however, Furman knows how to cause headaches for bigger FBS programs when they have a talented football team, and that’s exactly what Furman will have when it comes to Columbia on Sept. 9. Furman actually ended up out-gaining Clemson (382-375) in last year’s 35-12 loss to the Tigers. With that said, the cliché’ reason is always true when playing these games…Bigger, faster, and stronger, which that the Gamecocks will be. The one major advantage Furman has when it heads to Columbia in its second game of the season is that it will still be extremely early for this talented South Carolina team, who will host North Carolina in its season opener on Sept. 2. The Paladins, who open on Thursday night against Tennessee Tech, will have two extra days of rest. It’s not quite the five they had last year heading to Clemson, but it’s still a minor advantage. The other advantage Furman could find itself with is the fact that the Gamecocks head to two-time defending national champion Georgia the very next week. So Furman is between an opener vs North Carolina in Charlotte and a trip to Athens to face the two-time defending champs in the SEC opener. Furman will keep this game close into the third quarter, however, South Carolina will begin to pull away late in the third quarter and win a closer than the experts think, 38-17, game.  

Former Furman running back and assistant coach Antonio Wilcox vs. Kennesaw State in 2016/photo courtesy of Furman athletics

at Kennesaw State (Saturday, Sept. 16/Fifth-Third Bank Stadium/TBA)

Furman and Kennesaw State will be meeting for just the second time on the gridiron on Sept. 16, when the Paladins make the short trek to Atlanta to face the Owls in what will mark jus the second all-time meeting between the two programs. The only other meeting between the Owls and Paladins took place during the 2016 season, as Kennesaw State came to Paladin Stadium and handed the Paladins a 52-42 setback, scoring 49 of those points in the opening half of play, as the Owls led 49-14 at the break only to get outscored 28-3 in the second half, but still managed the 10-point win.

 It will be Furman’s first game in Atlanta since 2019, when the Paladins went toe-to-toe with Sun Belt member Georgia State, losing that contest by a score of 48-42.

The Owls are under the direction of veteran head coach Brian Bohannon (73-30/9th season), who is leading them into transition from being a high-level FCS program for the past eight years into the unknown of FBS football as a Group of Five conference member and Conference USA starting in 2024.

The 2023 season will be Kennesaw State’s final campaign as an FCS member, and without any conference affiliation after playing in the somewhat thrown together WAC-SUN, which featured a combination of former members of the OVC, Southland and old Western Athletic Conference to form a football only FBS conference.

That project is still on-going and uncertain, and it’s a project that after just one season, the Kennesaw State brass wanted no part of seeing where it ended up, so when an invitation came from Conference USA last year, the Owls were quick to pounce on the opportunity.

Like Appalachian State and Georgia Southern did back in their final season as a member of the SoCon, there will be no playoffs for the Owls. In fact, there, there won’t even be a conference affiliation, and thus, no opportunity for a chance at the FCS postseason.

The best advancement into the FCS postseason by the Owls during their short stint as an FCS program was getting to the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs on a pair of occasions, losing games to both Sam Houston State in 2017 (L, 27-34) and South Dakota State in 2018 (L, 17-27). The Owls will be an FCS independent in 2023.

Kennesaw State will look to avoid finishing their FCS experience like so many others have; with not-so-great returns. I remember when Appalachian State made the move up, and it didn’t go so well, as the Mountaineers finished out their FCS experience in 2013, posting what was a forgettable 4-8. The Mountaineers did do a smart thing by redshirting many of their upper-classmen in anticipation of the move up. It will be interesting to see what the overall mindset is here, as to whether or not Bohannon and staff look to redshirt a lot of upperclassmen, or with the COVID-19 year already still built in for some, is that even something worth pursuing.

Kennesaw State finished out the 2022 season with a 5-6 record, which marked the program’s first losing record at the end of a season since starting the program back in 2015. The Owls have certainly shown that in least in seven out of their eight seasons as an FCS member, they have looked the part of making the jump to FBS. It will at least be interesting to see how they approach 2023 on a couple of different fronts, with one of those being how it will approach coming off its first losing season in program history, as well as to having some rather big changes on both sides of the football.

The 2023 season will see the Owls transitioning away from the now suddenly archaic option offense, with all the blocking rule changes that have come to affect that style of offense over the past couple of seasons. The Owls will have two new coordinators to lead both the offensive and defensive sides of the football in the 2023 season. On offense, the Owls will go with Chris Klenakis as the new hire on that side of the ball, while Nathan Burton will be tasked with the new post as defensive coordinator.

Klenakis has extensive experience at the collegiate level, learning under one of the legendary coaches of FCS football, in Chris Ault at the University of Nevada before serving as an offensive staff member and quarterbacks coach at Louisville, where he helped develop future NFL All-Pro quarterback Lamar Jackson with the Ravens.  

While with the Wolfpack, he helped develop Colin Kaepernick at the collegiate level where he would eventually lead the San Francisco 49ERs to a Super Bowl appearance in his third season as a quarterback in the National Football League. Klenakis has also spent time as an offensive assistant at Liberty (2022), South Alabama (2021), Tulane (2019-20) Iowa State (2013), Arkansas (2009-12) Central Missouri (2003), Southern Mississippi (2000-02) and Nevada (1990-99; 2004-09).

In Klenakis’ very first season at Nevada in 1990, the Paladins squared off against the Nevada Wolfpack in Reno. Despite holding a 28-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Paladins would see the Wolfpack eventually come back to tie the game and force overtime, eventually claiming what was a triple-overtime, 42-35, win. The quarterfinal win by the Wolfpack at the time held the distinction of being the longest game in Division I-AA history.

The Wolfpack would go on to a triple-overtime win the following week against Boise State in the Division I-AA semifinals before eventually losing in the national championship game to Georgia Southern, 36-13, in Statesboro.  Fred Gatlin and Chris Vargas presided over a Pistol Offense as one of the top offenses in Division I-AA history to that point.

On the defensive side of the ball, Nathan Burton will take over as the new defensive coordinator for the Owls after having been the co-Defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Georgia Tech from 2019-21 before going on to coach in the USFL with the New Orleans Breakers. Prior to his stint at Georgia Tech, Burton also spent time as the defensive backs coach at Temple (2018), while also spending time as the defensive quality control coach at NC State (2017). Burton also has five years of experience as a defensive coordinator at the Division II level, spending time at both West Alabama (2014-16) and Shorter University (2012-13).

The Owls will be wide open on offense, utilizing the pistol/spread in most situations. Quarterbacks Jonathan Murphy (28-of-54 passing, 375 yds, 1 TD), DeAngelo Hardy and Braden Bohannon will all be in contention for the starting responsibilities this fall. Preston Daniels (84 rush att, 423 yds, 4 TDs, 5.0 YPC) returns as the top threat in the rushing game for the Owls heading into the 2023 season. Daniels will team with Yesiah Clemons (26 rush att, 148 yds, 5.7 YPC), as well as Gabriel Benyard (30 rush att, 202 yds, 6.7 YPC, 0 TDs) will be two more key performers in the running game for the Owls this fall.

Clemons, a former walk-on, was recently awarded a scholarship during the spring.  Benyard will also be in the kick return game for the Owls this coming fall, as he compiled a school-record 117 punt return yards in a game against Charleston Southern, helping lead the Owls to the 30-20 win.

The offensive front will be anchored by left tackle Jordan Love and left guard Trenton Jackson, who were part of an offensive front that helped the Owls 369.0 YPG last season, while posting 232.2 YPG on the ground, which was of course influenced by the Owls being more of a option-based attack. The Owls finished the 2022 campaign averaging 27.4 PPG.

On the defensive side of the football, the Owls welcome back seven starters for the 2023 season, highlighted by graduated student Markeith Montgomery (60 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 5 INTs, 1 QBH) at strong safety. Top returning tackler Garland Benyard (50 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 4 QBHs, 2 PBUs, 1 INT). Montgomery’s 10-career INTs are the most in the history of the program.

Brief Recap of the last meeting: Kennesaw State 52, Furman 42 (Oct. 1, 2016)

GREENVILLE, S.C.–In the 248 games played all-time in the history of Paladin Stadium heading into the 2023 season, the 2016 meeting between Furman and Kennesaw State will go down as one of the strangest in the history of the facility.

In the lone all-time meeting between the two programs, the Owls were able to hold on for what turned out to be a wild, 52-42, win over the Paladins after taking a 49-14 lead into the half. The loss sent Furman to an 0-5 start to the 2016 season, while the Owls improved their overall record to 3-1 to open the second month of the college football season. Dating back to the 2015 season, the loss marked Furman’s eighth-straight loss, spanning almost an entire calendar year. The losing streak for Furman’s longest since dropping eight-straight from 1969-70. With home loss to Samford a week later, the Paladins would drop a ninth-straight–a streak which dated back to 1954-55 when the Paladins dropped 11-straight spanning two campaigns.

Along with the 45-0 homecoming thrashing delivered by Samford during the 2014 season, the 52-42 loss to the Owls has to go up there with one of the modern-day low points for Furman football. It was part of a three-year stretch that saw the Paladins go just 5-11 inside the friendly confines of a place they have been dominant in throughout the facility’s history. In fact, Furman has posted a 183-64-1 all-time record inside Paladin Stadium, which is good enough for a .749 winning percentage. The three-year stretch of 16 home games from 2014-16 is the worst since the stadium opened in Sept. of 1981.

The 49 points in a half and the 582 total yards amassed by the Owls offense both still stand as Paladin Stadium records for an opponent. The Owls offense was led by sophomore Chandler Burks, who finished the contest with 103 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 27 rush attempts, also found some success throwing the football against the Paladin defense, as he connected on 9-of-12 passes for 171 yards and a score and did not throw an interception. Burks’ lone scoring toss of the day came on a 49-yard Hail Mary attempt as time expired in the opening 30 minutes of play, staking Kennesaw State to a big 49-14 halftime lead.

Furman was able to rally to make things interesting in the third quarter, however, utilizing three scores in the opening frame of the second half to get within 14 of the Owls, at 49-35.

Furman would score touchdowns on 53-yard scoring connection between quarterback Reese Hannon-to Andrej Suttles 20-yard scoring strike with 13:11 remaining in the third to get the Paladins to within 28.

Furman would then tack on scoring receptions of five and eight yards from tight end Kevin Mall and junior wideout Logan McCarter to get the Paladins within two scores, as Hannon completed the third quarter with a trifecta of scoring tosses.

Kennesaw State’s only points of the second half came when Christian Kinley booted through a 40-yard field goal with 9:20 remaining to extend the Owls lead back to 17, at 52-35. Little did anyone know at the time that it would prove to be the game-winning points for the visitors in such a wild game.

A little less than four minutes later, Furman would get its final points of the day when Antonio Wilcox found the end zone on Furman’s lone rushing score of the day–a 21-yard scamper with 5:30 remaining–making it a 52-42 game. The Owls would recover the ensuing onsides kick by Furman to essentially seal the win.

After getting out-gained 213-23 in the first quarter alone, Furman battled back to make things respectable in total yardage, as the Paladins were out-gained 582-455 for the contest.

It was a game that saw the Owls set nearly every offensive record for an opponent inside the facility, and just missed tying the facility mark for most rushing scores in Paladin Stadium, which is still held by The Citadel, who rushed for seven in 1994, powered by Terrence Rivers’ four scoring runs, as the Bulldogs knocked off Furman, 52-44, in a similar type of football game.

The Owls finished with six scores on the ground and one through the air, while Furman finished with five through the air and one on the ground.

Furman quarterback Reese Hannon finished the contest 28-of-40 passing for 330 yards, with five touchdowns and two INTs. His favorite target was Suttles, who hauled in seven passes for 104 yards and a score.

Not to be overshadowed by Burks’ stellar outing under center for the Owls, both running back Darnell Holland and 6-3 wideout Justin Sumpter were part of a comprehensive offensive effort from Kennesaw that came to Greenville hitting on all cylinders.

Holland finished the day rushing for 126 yards and two scores on just six carries, averaging a ridiculous 20.5 yards-per-carry! That’s likely a stadium record. Holland scored on scampers of 62 and five yards.

Not to be outdone, Sumpter would haul in six passes for 147 yards and a score, averaging 24.5 yards-per-catch.

The Prediction: This game looks like it’s one that the Paladins should be able to win on the road, despite the fact the prestige of the Kennesaw State football program as a whole, and the fact that Kennesaw State will be making transitions in philosophy on both sides of the football should give the Paladins a slight advantage. I look for Furman to win a close one and move to 2-1 overall on the season, defeating Kennesaw State, 35-28.

Stay tuned for part two, as I take a look at the first four Southern Conference games of the 2023 season, with the important month of October right on the horizon.

Published by soconjohn

I am a lover of all things SoCon, and I have had a passion to write about, follow and tell the world about this great conference for pretty much my entire life. While I do love the SoCon, and live in the SoCon city, which is home to the Furman Paladins, have a passion for sports in general, with college football and college hoops topping the list.

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